Sometimes you’re travelling along, lost in your own thoughts alongside your travel mate, also lost in their own thoughts. You’ve gone for a while without realising your thirst, and you go a while further before some remote possibility of quenching that thirst comes along on the road. Then, just before you can verbalize the emotions and needs, your travel mate, whom you believed was on some other mental voyage, anticipates your thoughts and says something like, “I could go for something cold and wet.”
Yes! All that’s left is to reply, “Yep, I’m parched,” then look for parking.
This happened today in Texola, the last place in Oklahoma, on westbound Old Route 66. There’s not much to Texola but a couple houses and the requisite derelict steel automobile bodies, some with seized-up motors, some drawn and quartered for parts long ago. There’s a water tower, one of those cylindrical ones, white, with TEXOLA, OK spelled down the side in black Times Roman. An abandoned gas station struggles against tall grass and low brush. Up near the water tower, a newly painted white building of unknown use has gathered three shiny new trucks to it and somewhere on the other side an air-powered tool assaults some ornery piece of machinery. The highway cuts through town like an old, nicked blade. Four lanes, divided, but the grass grows green and thickening through the many cracks in the two inside lanes. Only the rolling wheels of a few dozen cars and pickups a day keep the outside lanes cropped close.
There are only two other buildings of note and were it not for two bars and our thirst, we’d have passed through Texola without noticing much of it. The town would only have been remembered, faintly, for a sign proclaiming its proximity to Texas. Instead, we pulled into the large, open but not empty gravel lot, picked one of the two buildings and entered through one of two steel doors, neither of which were marked, “Entrance.”
The inside was dark, and quiet. John, a few steps ahead of me, had picked a stool at the bar and already discovered the second establishment of the day with no diet Coke. Not a great drinking day for John. I went with a Bud and John a Coors Lite, exhausting their draft selection. On the stool next to me an old fella bellied up to the bar, fiddling with his cigar. Between his gnawing at one end, and drawing huge puffs of acrid smoke from the brightly burning ember at the other, that cigar didn’t have much life left in it. “How ya doin’,” he said, rolling that cigar between his fingertips. “Great. Y’self?” He pulled another puff from the cigar, turned back to the bar and his beer, apparently satisfied the conversation had run its course.
Two old men sat opposite each other at a low table under one of those fake leaded glass beer lights hanging from the ceiling on a chain. One took a pull from his Pepsi while the other scrambled ivory dominoes on the table top. A third old fella impassively watched them play. To call them old men isn’t enough, of course, and these were characters of the finest example, but to describe how they looked? Perhaps a photograph…
I watched them a bit from my stool before placing my camera on the bar edge and surreptitiously snapping off a few photos. Daylight film, tungsten light, long exposures: I don’t expect anything. John wondered whether I should ask the domino player’s permission, which is the right thing to do. But, “well, if I do that, they’ll start posing, they’ll want to smile for the camera and the way they are right now is perfect. Even if I can explain that to them, they’d be aware of the camera.”
I heard the sound of a coin-op pool table releasing its lode of balls. Two women, a little younger than myself, racked up the faded spheres at one of two pool tables. The reds were pink and the pinks were like the hide of the state fair’s winning pig. We took pulls from our beers and watched them play.
It was quickly obvious who would win. The t-shirt of the first shooter hung loosely, past the hips. Thick strands of long, fine hair escaped from the high ponytail and hung about her shoulders limply like her shirt around her hips. Her attention to her cue work was as slap-dash as her appearance. The cue ball careened off the front ball and scooted into a corner pocket when she broke.
Her partner scanned the table while chalking her cue, and continued while reaching down for the cue ball. Curly hair framed her face, long at the back and sides, recently cut short at the bangs. Blue polo shirt tucked neatly into unfaded blue jeans girdled with a thick leather belt clasped with one of those enormous silver buckles cowboys seem to like. She placed the cue ball deliberately, built a solid arch for the stick and with the smoothness of much practice, stroked the cue ball neatly and firmly cross-table into the purple which ran straight into the back of its intended pocket.
We watched them play a game or two, while we watched the cigar-smoker at the bar feed them some quarters for the jukebox, while we watched the dominoes game behind us. “You fella’s play pool?” the cigar-smoker asked John. “Yes, a bit.” John plays well; I’m a hack. “Well, you should play them.” So we did.
Theresa’s the name of the sharp-shooter. She’s what’s known as a potter, someone who tries to sink a ball with every shot, no matter the difficulty. John and I both like to play a more tactical game. If there are no high percentage shots available, we’ll play the cue ball into a difficult place for our opponents. I’d put the thing in all kinds of nasty spots and Theresa, who shot after me, would have a go at some rather creative shots. “Well, I’m not sure this’ll work, but I’m gonna try to play the five off the seven into the corner.” She made a lot of those shots.
John and I don’t normally call pockets when we play except for the eight ball, but Theresa and her partner called every shot and Theresa always used the same self-deprecating tone: “I think I’ll try to…This probably won’t work but…” Her stroke, however, displayed her confidence.
We took the first game, they the second. At the end of the third game the table had been cleared of all but the eight ball and we’d each had an unsuccessful go at it when Theresa’s partner took her customary slap-dash whack and neatly sent the white ball off the black and into the corner.
We thanked them for the games, bid our adieus and left through the other steel door. Theresa came out a few minutes later while I was capturing Texola on film. She walked up to this gorgeous, brand new red Dodge Ram pickup with duelies (er, four wheels on the rear axle.) “Nice truck!” I called to her. “Thanks.” The three of us conversed for a bit and we learned she lived in Shamrock not too far up the road in Texas, worked on the oil pipeline — which made sense from her appearance and the expensive truck — but had worked a couple years at this very bar. “Gets kinda slow during the day, so I’d play a lot a pool.”
Yes, she did. And with that we all clambered into our trucks and drove off into the hot, dusty afternoon. Thirst slaked for a bit. Thirst for something wet. Thirst for connection with a few vivid denizens of the Mother Road.
Oklahoma, United States of America, 1997